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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
An Unwilling Priest
By Alessandro Manzoni (1785–1873)
 
        
From ‘The Betrothed
  
  [The following amusing scene occurs in the earlier portion of Manzoni’s novel. Don Abbondio, a cowardly village curate, has been warned by Don Rodrigo, his lord of the manor, that if he dares to unite in marriage two young peasants, Renzo and Lucia (the “betrothed” of the story), vengeance will follow. The priest accordingly shirks his duty; and cruelly refusing to set any marriage date, shuts himself up in his house and even barricades himself against Renzo’s entreaties. Donna Agnese, the mother of Lucia, hears that if a betrothed pair can but reach the presence of their parish priest and announce that they take each other as man and wife, the marriage is as binding as if celebrated with all formality. Accordingly Agnese devises a sort of attack on the priest by stratagem, to be managed by the parties to the contract and two witnesses (the brothers Tonio and Gervase); which device is considerably endangered by the wariness of the curate’s housekeeper, Perpetua.]

IN front of Don Abbondio’s door, a narrow street ran between two cottages; but only continued straight the length of the buildings, and then turned into the fields. Agnese went forward along this street, as if she would go a little aside to speak more freely, and Perpetua followed. When they had turned the corner, and reached a spot whence they could no longer see what happened before Don Abbondio’s house, Agnese coughed loudly. This was the signal; Renzo heard it, and re-animating Lucia by pressing her arm, they turned the corner together on tiptoe, crept very softly close along the wall, reached the door, and gently pushed it open: quiet, and stooping low, they were quickly in the passage; and here the two brothers were waiting for them. Renzo very gently let down the latch of the door, and they all four ascended the stairs, making scarcely noise enough for two. On reaching the landing, the two brothers advanced towards the door of the room at the side of the staircase, and the lovers stood close against the wall.  1
  “Deo gratias,” said Tonio in an explanatory tone.  2
  “Eh, Tonio! is it you? Come in!” replied the voice within. Tonio opened the door, scarcely wide enough to admit himself and his brother one at a time. The ray of light that suddenly shone through the opening and crossed the dark floor of the landing made Lucia tremble, as if she were discovered. When the brothers had entered, Tonio closed the door inside: the lovers stood motionless in the dark, their ears intently on the alert, and holding their breath; the loudest noise was the beating of poor Lucia’s heart.  3
  Don Abbondio was seated, as we have said, in an old armchair, enveloped in an antiquated dressing-gown, and his head buried in a shabby cap of the shape of a tiara, which by the faint light of a small lamp formed a sort of cornice all around his face. Two thick locks which escaped from beneath his headdress, two thick eyebrows, two thick mustachios, and a thick tuft on the chin, all of them gray and scattered over his dark and wrinkled visage, might be compared to bushes covered with snow, projecting from the face of a cliff, as seen by moonlight.  4
  “Aha!” was his salutation, as he took off his spectacles and laid them on his book.  5
  “The Signor Curate will say I am come very late,” said Tonio with a low bow, which Gervase awkwardly imitated.  6
  “Certainly, it is late—late every way. Don’t you know I am ill?”  7
  “I’m very sorry for it.”  8
  “You must have heard I was ill, and didn’t know when I should be able to see anybody…. But why have you brought this—this boy with you?”  9
  “For company, Signor Curate.”  10
  “Very well, let us see.”  11
  “Here are twenty-five new berlinghe, with the figure of Saint Ambrose on horseback,” said Tonio, drawing a little parcel out of his pocket.  12
  “Let us see,” said Don Abbondio; and he took the parcel, put on his spectacles again, opened it, took out the berlinghe, turned them over and over, counted them, and found them irreprehensible.  13
  “Now, Signor Curate, you will give me Tecla’s necklace.”  14
  “You are right,” replied Don Abbondio; and going to a cupboard, he took out a key, looking around as if to see that all prying spectators were at a proper distance, opened one of the doors, and filling up the aperture with his person, introduced his head to see and his arm to reach the pledge; then drawing it out, he shut the cupboard, unwrapped the paper, and saying, “Is that right?” folded it up again and handed it to Tonio.  15
  “Now,” said Tonio, “will you please to put it in black and white?”  16
  “Not satisfied yet!” said Don Abbondio. “I declare they know everything. Eh! how suspicious the world has become! Don’t you trust me?”  17
  “What, Signor Curate! Don’t I trust you? You do me wrong. But as my name is in your black books, on the debtor’s side— Then, since you have had the trouble of writing once, so— From life to death—”  18
  “Well, well,” interrupted Don Abbondio; and muttering between his teeth, he drew out one of the table drawers, took thence pen, ink, and paper, and began to write, repeating the words aloud as they proceeded from his pen. In the mean time Tonio, and at his side Gervase, placed themselves standing before the table in such a manner as to conceal the door from the view of the writer, and began to shuffle their feet about on the floor, as if in mere idleness, but in reality as a signal to those without to enter, and at the same time to drown the noise of their footsteps. Don Abbondio, intent upon his writing, noticed nothing else. At the noise of their feet, Renzo took Lucia’s arm, pressing it in an encouraging manner, and went forward, almost dragging her along; for she trembled to such a degree that without his help she must have sunk to the ground. Entering very softly, on tiptoe, and holding their breath, they placed themselves behind the two brothers. In the mean time, Don Abbondio, having finished writing, read over the paper attentively, without raising his eyes; he then folded it up, saying, “Are you content now?” and taking off his spectacles with one hand, handed the paper to Tonio with the other, and looked up. Tonio, extending his right hand to receive it, retired on one side, and Gervase, at a sign from him, on the other; and behold! as at the shifting of a scene, Renzo and Lucia stood between them. Don Abbondio saw indistinctly—saw clearly—was terrified, astonished, enraged, buried in thought, came to a resolution; and all this while Renzo uttered the words, “Signor Curate, in the presence of these witnesses, this is my wife.” Before, however, Lucia’s lips could form the reply, Don Abbondio dropped the receipt, seized the lamp with his left hand and raised it in the air, caught hold of the cloth with his right, and dragged it furiously off the table, bringing to the ground in its fall, book, paper, inkstand, and sand-box; and springing between the chair and the table, advanced towards Lucia. The poor girl, with her sweet gentle voice, trembling violently, had scarcely uttered the words, “And this—” when Don Abbondio threw the cloth rudely over her head and face, to prevent her pronouncing the entire formula. Then, letting the light fall from his other hand, he employed both to wrap the cloth round her face, till she was well-nigh smothered, shouting in the mean while, at the stretch of his voice, like a wounded bull, “Perpetua! Perpetua!—treachery!—help!” The light, just glimmering on the ground, threw a dim and flickering ray upon Lucia, who, in utter consternation, made no attempt to disengage herself, and might be compared to a statue sculptured in chalk, over which the artificer had thrown a wet cloth. When the light died away, Don Abbondio quitted the poor girl, and went groping about to find the door that opened into an inner room: and having reached it, he entered and shut himself in, unceasingly exclaiming, “Perpetua! treachery! help! Out of the house! Out of the house!”  19
  In the other room all was confusion: Renzo, seeking to lay hold of the Curate, and feeling with his hands, as if playing at blindman’s buff, had reached the door, and kicking against it, was crying, “Open, open; don’t make such a noise!” Lucia, calling to Renzo in a feeble voice, said beseechingly, “Let us go, let us go, for God’s sake.” Tonio was crawling on his knees, and feeling with his hands on the ground to recover his lost receipt. The terrified Gervase was crying and jumping about, and seeking for the door of the stairs, so as to make his escape in safety.  20
  In the midst of this uproar, we cannot but stop a moment to make a reflection. Renzo, who was causing disturbance at night in another person’s house, who had effected an entrance by stealth, and who had blockaded the master himself in one of his own rooms, has all the appearance of an oppressor; while in fact he was the oppressed. Don Abbondio, taken by surprise, terrified and put to flight, while peaceably engaged in his own affairs, appears the victim; when in reality it was he who did the wrong. Thus frequently goes the world;—or rather, we should say, thus it went in the seventeenth century.  21
  The besieged, finding that the enemy gave no signs of abandoning the enterprise, opened a window that looked into the church-yard, and shouted out, “Help! help!” There was a most lovely moon; the shadow of the church, and a little farther on the long sharp shadow of the bell-tower, lay dark, still, and well defined, on the bright grassy level of the sacred inclosure: all objects were visible, almost as by day. But look which way you would, there appeared no sign of living person. Adjoining the lateral wall of the church, on the side next the parsonage, was a small dwelling where the sexton slept. Aroused by this unusual cry, he sprang up in his bed, jumped out in great haste, threw open the sash of his little window, put his head out with his eyelids glued together all the while, and cried out, “What’s the matter?”  22
  “Run, Ambrogio! help! people in the house!” answered Don Abbondio. “Coming directly,” replied he, as he drew in his head and shut the window; and although half asleep and more than half terrified, an expedient quickly occurred to him that would bring more aid than had been asked, without dragging him into the affray, whatever it might be. Seizing his breeches that lay upon the bed, he tucked them under his arm like a gala hat, and bounding down-stairs by a little wooden ladder, ran to the belfry, caught hold of the rope that was attached to the larger of the two bells, and pulled vigorously.  23
  Ton, ton, ton, ton: the peasant sprang up in his bed; the boy stretched in the hay-loft listened eagerly, and leapt upon his feet. “What’s the matter? what’s the matter? The bell ’s ringing! Fire? Thieves? Banditti?” Many of the women advised, begged, their husbands not to stir—to let others run; some got up and went to the window; those who were cowards, as if yielding to entreaty, quietly slipped under the bedclothes again; while the more inquisitive and courageous sprang up and armed themselves with pitchforks and pistols, to run to the uproar; others waited to see the end….  24
  Renzo, who had more of his senses about him than the rest, remembered that they had better make their escape one way or another before the crowds assembled; and that the best plan would be to do as Menico advised,—nay, commanded, with the authority of one in terror. When once on their way, and out of the tumult and danger, he could ask a clearer explanation from the boy. “Lead the way,” said he to Menico; and addressing the women, said, “Let us go with him.” They therefore quickly turned their steps towards the church, crossed the church-yard,—where, by the favor of Heaven, there was not yet a living creature,—entered a little street that ran between the church and Don Abbondio’s house, turned into the first alley they came to, and then took the way of the fields.  25
  They had not perhaps gone fifty yards, when the crowd began to collect in the church-yard, and rapidly increased every moment. They looked inquiringly in each other’s faces; every one had a question to ask, but no one could return an answer. Those who arrived first ran to the church door: it was locked. They then ran to the belfry outside; and one of them, putting his mouth to a very small window, a sort of loophole, cried, “What ever is the matter?” As soon as Ambrogio recognized a known voice, he let go of the bell-rope, and being assured by the buzz that many people had assembled, replied, “I’ll open the door.” Hastily slipping on the apparel he had carried under his arm, he went inside the church and opened the door.  26
  “What is all this hubbub?—What is it?—Where is it?—Who is it?”  27
  “Why, who is it?” said Ambrogio, laying one hand on the door-post, and with the other holding up the habiliment he had put on in such haste: “What! don’t you know? People in the Signor Curate’s house. Up, boys; help!” Hearing this, they all turned to the house, looked up, approached it in a body, looked up again, listened: all was quiet. Some ran to the street door; it was shut and bolted: they glanced upwards; not a window was open, not a whisper was to be heard.  28
  “Who is within?—Ho! Hey!—Signor Curate!—Signor Curate!”  29
  Don Abbondio, who, scarcely aware of the flight of the invaders, had retired from the window and closed it, and who at this moment was reproaching Perpetua in a low voice for having left him alone in this confusion, was obliged, when he heard himself called upon by the voice of the assembled people, to show himself again at the window; and when he saw the crowds that had come to his aid, he sorely repented having called them.  30
  “What has happened?—What have they done to you?—Who are they?—Where are they?” burst forth from fifty voices at once.  31
  “There’s nobody here now: thank you; go home again.”  32
  “But who has been here?—Where are they gone?—What has happened?”  33
  “Bad people, people who go about by night; but they’re gone: go home again; there is no longer anything; another time, my children: I thank you for your kindness to me.” So saying, he drew back and shut the window. Some of the crowd began to grumble, some to joke, others to curse; some shrugged their shoulders and took their departure….  34
  The melancholy trio continued their walk, the women taking the lead and Renzo behind to act as guard. Lucia clung closely to her mother’s arm, kindly and dexterously avoiding the proffered assistance of the youth at the difficult passes of this unfrequented path; feeling ashamed of herself, even in such troubles, for having already been so long and so familiarly alone with him, while expecting in a few moments to be his wife. Now that this vision had been so sorrowfully dispelled, she repented having proceeded thus far; and amidst so many causes of fear, she feared even for her modesty;—not such modesty as arises from the sad knowledge of evil, but for that which is ignorant of its own existence; like the dread of a child who trembles in the dark, he knows not why.  35
  “And the house?” suddenly exclaimed Agnese. But however important the object might be which extorted this exclamation, no one replied, because no one could do so satisfactorily. They therefore continued their walk in silence, and in a little while reached the square before the church of the convent.  36
  Renzo advanced to the door of the church, and gently pushed it open. The moon that entered through the aperture fell upon the pale face and silvery beard of Father Cristoforo, who was standing here expecting them; and having seen that no one was missing, “God be praised!” said he, beckoning to them to enter. By his side stood another Capuchin, the lay sexton, whom he had persuaded by prayers and arguments to keep vigil with him, to leave the door ajar, and to remain there on guard to receive these poor threatened creatures; and it required nothing short of the authority of the Father, and of his fame as a saint, to persuade the layman to so inconvenient, perilous, and irregular a condescension. When they were inside, Father Cristoforo very softly shut the door. Then the sexton could no longer contain himself, and taking the Father aside, whispered in his ear. “But, Father, Father! at night—in church—with women—shut—the rule—but, Father!” And he shook his head, while thus hesitatingly pronouncing these words. Just see! thought Father Cristoforo: if it were a pursued robber, Friar Fazio would make no difficulty in the world; but a poor innocent escaping from the jaws of a wolf— “Omnia munda mundis,” 1 added he, turning suddenly to Friar Fazio, and forgetting that he did not understand Latin. But this forgetfulness was exactly what produced the right effect. If the Father had begun to dispute and reason, Friar Fazio would not have failed to urge opposing arguments, and no one knows how and when the discussion would have come to an end; but at the sound of these weighty words of a mysterious signification, and so resolutely uttered, it seemed to him that in them must be contained the solution of all his doubts. He acquiesced, saying, “Very well: you know more about it than I do.”  37
  “Trust me, then,” replied Father Cristoforo; and by the dim light of the lamp burning before the altar, he approached the refugees, who stood waiting in suspense, and said to them, “My children, thank God, who has delivered you from so great a danger! Perhaps at this moment—” And here he began to explain more fully what he had hinted by the little messenger; little suspecting that they knew more than he, and supposing that Menico had found them quiet in their own house, before the arrival of the ruffians. Nobody undeceived him,—not even Lucia, whose conscience, however, was all the while secretly reproaching her for practicing such dissimulation with so good a man; but it was a night of embarrassment and dissimulation.  38
  “After this,” continued he, “you must feel, my children, that the village is no longer safe for you. It is yours, who were born there, and you have done no wrong to any one; but God wills it so. It is a trial, my children; bear it with patience and faith, without indulging in rancor, and rest assured there will come a day when you will think yourselves happy that this has occurred. I have thought of a refuge for you, for the present. Soon, I hope, you may be able to return in safety to your own house; at any rate, God will provide what is best for you; and I assure you, I will be careful not to prove unworthy of the favor he has bestowed upon me, in choosing me as his minister, in the service of you his poor yet loved afflicted ones. You,” continued he, turning to the two women, “can stay at ——. Here you will be far enough from every danger, and at the same time not far from your own home. There seek out our convent, ask for the guardian, and give him this letter: he will be to you another Father Cristoforo. And you, my Renzo, must put yourself in safety from the anger of others, and your own. Carry this letter to Father Bonaventura da Lodi, in our convent of the Porta Orientale, at Milan. He will be a father to you, will give you directions and find you work, till you can return and live more peaceably. Go to the shore of the lake, near the mouth of the Bione, a river not far from this monastery. Here you will see a boat waiting; say, ‘Boat!’ It will be asked you, ‘For whom?’ And you must reply, ‘San Francesco.’ The boat will receive you and carry you to the other side, where you will find a cart that will take you straight to ——.”  39
  If any one asks how Father Cristoforo had so quickly at his disposal these means of transport by land and water, it will show that he does not know the influence and power of a Capuchin held in reputation as a saint.  40
  It still remained to decide about the care of the houses. The Father received the keys, pledging himself to deliver them to whomsoever Renzo and Agnese should name. The latter, in delivering up hers, heaved a deep sigh, remembering that at that moment the house was open, that the devil had been there, and who knew what remained to be taken care of!  41
  “Before you go,” said the Father, “let us pray all together that the Lord may be with you in this your journey, and for ever; and above all, that he may give you strength and a spirit of love, to enable you to desire whatever he has willed.” So saying, he knelt down in the middle of the church, and they all followed his example.  42
  After praying a few moments in silence, with a low but distinct voice he pronounced these words:—“We beseech thee also for the unhappy person who has brought us to this state. We should be unworthy of thy mercy if we did not from our hearts implore it for him; he needs it, O Lord! We, in our sorrow, have this consolation, that we are in the path where thou hast placed us; we can offer thee our griefs and they may become our gain. But he is thine enemy! Alas, wretched man, he is striving with thee! Have mercy on him, O Lord, touch his heart; reconcile him to thyself, and give him all those good things we could desire for ourselves.”  43
  Rising then in haste, he said, “Come, my children, you have no time to lose: God defend you; his angel go with you;—farewell!” And while they set off with that emotion which cannot find words, and manifests itself without them, the Father added in an agitated tone, “My heart tells me we shall meet again soon.”  44
  Certainly the heart, to those who listen to it, has always something to say on what will happen; but what did his heart know? Very little, truly, of what had already happened.  45
  Without waiting a reply, Father Cristoforo retired with hasty steps; the travelers took their departure, and Father Fazio shut the door after them, bidding them farewell with even his voice a little faltering.  46
  The trio slowly made their way to the shore they had been directed to; there they espied the boat, and exchanging the password, stepped in. The waterman, planting one oar on the land, pushed off; then took up the other oar, and rowing with both hands, pulled out and made towards the opposite beach. Not a breath of wind was stirring; the lake lay bright and smooth, and would have appeared motionless but for the tremulous and gentle undulation of the moonbeams, which gleamed upon it from the zenith. No sounds were heard but the muffled and slowly measured breaking of the surge upon the pebbly shore, the more distant gurgling of the troubled waters dashing among the piles of the bridge, and the even plash of the light sculls, as, rising with the sharp sound of a dripping blade, and quickly plunged again beneath, they cut the azure surface of the lake. The waves, divided by the prow, and reuniting behind the little bark, tracked out a curling line which extended itself to the shore. The silent travelers, with their faces turned backwards, gazed upon the mountains and the country, illumined by the pale light of the moon, and diversified here and there with vast shadows. They could distinguish the villages, the houses, and the little cabins: the palace of Don Rodrigo, with its square tower, rising above the group of huts at the base of the promontory, looked like a savage standing in the dark and meditating some evil deed while keeping guard over a company of reclining sleepers. Lucia saw it and shuddered; then drawing her eye along the declivity till she reached her native village, she fixed her gaze on its extremity, sought for her own cottage, traced out the thick head of the fig-tree which towered above the wall of the courtyard, discovered the window of her own room,—and being seated in the bottom of the boat, she leaned her elbow on the edge, laid her forehead on her arm as if she were sleeping, and wept in secret.  47
  Farewell, ye mountains, rising from the waters and pointing to the heavens! ye varied summits, familiar to him who has been brought up among you, and impressed upon his mind as clearly as the countenance of his dearest friends! ye torrents, whose murmur he recognizes like the sound of the voices of home! ye villages, scattered and glistening on the declivity, like flocks of grazing sheep! Farewell! How mournful is the step of him who, brought up amidst your scenes, is compelled to leave you! Even in the imagination of one who willingly departs, attracted by the hope of making a fortune elsewhere, the dreams of wealth at this moment lose their charms; he wonders he could form such a resolution, and would even now turn back but for the hope of one day returning with a rich abundance. As he advances into the plain, his eye becomes wearied with its uniform extent; the atmosphere feels heavy and lifeless; he sadly and listlessly enters the busy cities, where houses crowded upon houses, and streets intersecting streets, seem to take away his breath; and before edifices admired by the stranger, he recalls with restless longing the fields of his own country, and the cottage he had long ago set his heart upon, and which he resolves to purchase when he returns enriched to his own mountains.  48
  But what must he feel who has never sent a passing wish beyond these mountains, who has arranged among them all his designs for the future, and is driven far away by an adverse power! who, suddenly snatched away from his dearest habits, and thwarted in his dearest hopes, leaves these mountains to go in search of strangers whom he never desired to know, and is unable to look forward to a fixed time of return!  49
  Farewell, native cottage—where, indulging in unconscious fancy, one learnt to distinguish from the noise of common footsteps the approach of a tread expected with mysterious timidity! Farewell, thou cottage,—still a stranger, but so often hastily glanced at, not without a blush, in passing—in which the mind took delight to figure to itself the tranquil and lasting home of a wife! Farewell, my church, where the heart was so often soothed while chanting the praises of the Lord; where the preparatory rite of betrothal was performed; where the secret sighing of the heart was solemnly blessed, and love was inspired, and one felt a hallowing influence around. Farewell! He who imparted to you such gladness is everywhere; and he never disturbs the joy of his children but to prepare them for one more certain and durable.  50
  Of such a nature, if not exactly these, were the reflections of Lucia; and not very dissimilar were those of the two other wanderers, while the little bark rapidly approached the right bank of the Adda.  51
 
Note 1. Or in reverse, “To the pure all things are pure.” [back]
 
 
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